When it first debuted in 2009, the Legacy struck a more muscular, more aggressive figure than its slab-sided contemporaries from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Today, the sedan still looks more aggressive than your average Camry or Accord. Muscular fender flares serve as reminders of the all-wheel-drive system beneath the sheet metal and the sporting heritage that it shares with the likes of the smaller, nimbler WRX. Large, eagle-eyed headlamps house high-intensity discharge projectors that crisply illuminate the road ahead. The Legacy is just a giant wing and a set of plus-sized mags away from looking like an FIA World Touring Car Championship racer. It looks fast, but does so in a way that doesn't scream boy racer.
Proportionally, however, it's just as big and imposing as its more pedestrian competition; which is sort of unavoidable if it hopes to offer the passenger and cargo volume that will keep it competitive in this class. Its performance -- which we'll come back to -- is also just as conservative as the rest. As it turns out, building a car that looks fast is quite different from building one that is fast, though I'm not sure that the latter was ever Subaru's goal with the Legacy's 2.5i configuration.
Hop behind the wheel and you'll be greeted with dashboard materials that, frankly, feel cheap. No, that's not real brushed metal on the center stack. Yes, that dashboard is made of hard plastic. However, the Legacy's designers have done a good job of creating a nice visual texture and a variety of colors and textures that make the cabin look much nicer than it feels. And since I don't spend a lot of time pawing at the upper dashboard, I don't mind at all. I do mind the pair of patches of translucent blue plastic near the volume and tuning knobs that look out of place and chintzy in the otherwise well-designed cabin. Toyota used to cover the Camry's dashboard in this flash years ago, but has since learned better. I hope not to see this on the upcoming 2015 model.
Heated front buckets don't offer much in the way of cornering support, but they are nice on a chilly day. And I was surprised to see an actual key for our fully loaded example at a time where most automakers' entry models offer push-button starters, touch-sensitive keyless entry, or both.
Audio sources for the Limited's standard Harman Kardon audio system include Bluetooth for both hands-free calling, audio streaming, and text-to-speech SMS messaging; AM/FM radio with HD Radio decoding (a nice quality bump for fans of terrestrial radio); SiriusXM satellite radio; and the standard 3.5mm analog auxiliary input-USB port combo that supports iPod connections from iOS devices.
DivX logos on the dashboard hint that the receiver's display has been upgraded with the navigation option for playback of DivX-encoded video CDs or commercial DVDs while parked. You probably won't be doing that very often, but you can still use the display to peek behind you when reversing using the rearview camera, which features a distance marker overlay, but no dynamically updating trajectory lines or proximity detection.
Upgrading to the package that includes the navigation system also adds Aha Radio integration when paired with a compatible smartphone via USB (for iOS), or Bluetooth (for Android). I like Aha's audio-streaming options for music and talk radio programming, but I simply can't figure out what kind of person would want to listen to robotic TTS readings of Twitter and Facebook feeds. It was nice to listen to Yelp ratings for nearby destination types (such as coffee shops) and then navigate to one of those destinations with the touch of a button, so I suppose it's not totally impractical.
The aforementioned Harman Kardon stereo packs in nine speakers and sounds pretty good with some seriously powerful bass from its parcel shelf-mounted subwoofer. However, its default flat setting is a bit muddy and could be better where midrange clarity is concerned. Fortunately, you've got a seven-band equalizer to play with so you can tweak the audio to your liking. Subaru doesn't include any preset curves for this equalizer, so, with this level of flexibility, you could just as easily make the system sound worse, but that's not Subaru's fault. I found some great starting-point settings by searching the Legacy owners' forums and found the powerful stereo's performance to be one of the most pleasurable aspects of the week's testing.
The SD card-based Subaru Starlink navigation will get you from point A to point B if you follow its instructions, but the system is also rudimentary, sluggish, and frankly disappointing for this class. At every tap of the touch screen's virtual buttons, I was disappointed at what was up to a 1-second lag between tapping a menu button and getting an onscreen response. One second doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up when you're performing multiple taps to search for the nearest gas station at highway speeds. For your trouble, the navigation isn't even really that good. The volume of the spoken prompts doesn't adjust with the music volume, so I found that they were either too quiet to be heard or too loud. The traffic reporting will tell you that there's a jam ahead, but will not offer any way around it. By the end of the week, I'd reverted to using my smartphone tucked into a cup holder -- not a strong vote of confidence for the onboard navigation, which comes as part of a $4,040 package.
Also part of that $4,040 package is Subaru's EyeSight camera system, which lives on the cabin's ceiling and features a pair of cameras that look out at the road ahead with stereoscopic vision. The camera's feeds, though not visible to the driver, are put to use powering the lane departure warnings, forward-collision warnings, pedestrian and cyclist detection, and adaptive cruise control systems. That Subaru does all of this with two cameras is impressive; most automakers use radar or lasers for their forward sensors.
The Subaru adaptive cruise control can bring the vehicle to a complete stop, if necessary and possible, and brakes pretty aggressively to keep you from plowing into a vehicle stopped ahead. In stop-and-go traffic it can also be useful, but its hold feature won't automatically resume forward movement after it comes to a complete stop without your intervention. One minor annoyance of this system is that, by default, it beeps every time the cameras lock onto, or lose their lock on, the lead vehicle, which leads to incessant beeping as vehicles enter and leave your lane. Thankfully, you can (and should) disable the beeps in a settings menu.
Lane-departure warning doesn't intervene or help you to keep your lane. It also doesn't have any auxiliary LED warning lights, just a warning icon in the instrument cluster display and a weak beep that isn't really loud enough to be heard over the stereo. Likewise, the forward-collision warning's beep doesn't accompany any flashing red LEDs or even silence the stereo for its beeping, so you'll want to pay extra care to the road when you're dropping the bass.
On the road
Under the hood is a 2.5-liter, horizontally opposed (or Boxer) four-cylinder engine. No, this is not the turbocharged mill that you'll find in the WRX STI, but a naturally aspirated variant with an output stated at 173 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. That engine is paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in our loaded Limited model that exchanges a bit of the car's sporty soul in pursuit of efficiency. Thusly equipped, the Legacy does gain a few more miles per gallon over models equipped with the six-speed manual gearbox. The EPA reckons 24 mpg and 32 mpg for the city and highway, respectively, with an estimate of 27 mpg combined.
Antuan's Comparable Picks
On the road, the CVT's performance makes the Legacy a difficult car to appreciate, performing poorly in the sort of tests that you'd typically put a car through on your first test drive. Mash the accelerator and you'll get a lot of revving and seconds of waiting, but no real acceleration while the CVT and the engine negotiate for a bit before settling on full speed ahead. In its automatic mode, the engine and CVT create very rubber-bandlike acceleration and uneven throttle response, and it will always seem like the engine is a few seconds behind your inputs -- and I do mean a few seconds. Disappointed, you'll probably slap the shifter into its "manual shift" mode and try manage the shifting yourself, but find that the ratio changes are even slower than just letting the transmission hunt around on its own, and too slow to be useful for quick passing.
At least, that's what happened to me during my first few days with the Legacy. But then, something odd happened. Once I'd stopped mashing the pedal and slapping the paddle shifters, I realized that the Subaru was a pretty easy car to live with. With smoother inputs, the CVT was better able to meet and match the engine's available torque with the demands of around-town acceleration. On the highway, the engine was nicely quiet and -- if I remembered to leave myself enough time before passing -- offered smooth acceleration with a nice swell in power rather than a jarring shift. I found that the Legacy was quite good for the laid-back sort of driving that you'll find yourself doing 95 percent of the time, when you're not bombing canyons or blitzing through traffic.
With this fresh set of expectations for the Subaru's performance, I tackled my favorite back roads again and still found the sedan lacking. Even with a more laid-back approach to speed, the CVT always seemed to be at an odd ratio when cornering, leaving the power just out of reach for a few seconds when exiting a turn. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of the manual shift mode, not to quickly change virtual gears, but by preselecting and holding a ratio (say third "gear") ahead of time and during curvy passages for better and more predictable corner exit power.
Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is Subaru's claim to fame, so it's no surprise that the Legacy is so equipped. However, while I did find that the large sedan felt more sure-footed when cornering and accelerating over wet roads than similarly equipped front-drivers, I didn't feel that the AWD system really helped with performance or midcorner rotation. It certainly doesn't help cancel out the push of understeer you'll feel when approaching the handling limits. Despite its electronically variable torque split between front and rear, the version of Subaru's AWD system present on this CVT-equipped model still behaves a lot like a front-wheel-drive model on dry tarmac.
You can get the Legacy 2.5i with a six-speed manual gearbox and, if you can drive a standard and you care about motoring joy, you may want to consider doing so if only for the more responsive and less rubber-band-y throttle response. However, you'll lose quite a few miles per gallon across the board. There's also a more powerful 3.6R model with a 256-horsepower six-cylinder and a conventional torque converter to consider, but I don't think a lack of power is the the Legacy's problem, I'd just like better access to the power already on tap.
My time with the Legacy has got me wondering what wonders Subaru's STI division could work on this chassis if it could spare a few moments from tinkering with the Impreza. It could be brilliant, but I doubt we'll see anything soon; the Legacy is due for a major overhaul for the 2015 model year at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show.
Pricing and recommendation
Is the 2014 Subaru Legacy better than a Camry or an Accord? On paper, its all-wheel drive and sporting, er, legacy should make it a much better driver, but most of that doesn't translate into real-world performance (especially not around CNET's San Francisco offices, where a slight drizzle is as close to inclement weather as we usually get). If we're honest, you and I, none of the 2.5-liter engines and automatic transmissions in this class are amazing performers from a sport driving standpoint. However, that the AWD Subaru's fuel economy is on par with the FWD competition in this class is noteworthy.
The Subaru is less boring than the competition, but that's a subjective measurement that is based mostly on my constantly varying opinion of the engine and CVT combo over the testing period.
What I can say with certainty is that the Subaru is not a better tech car than the competition. Toyota's Entune, Honda's HondaLink, and even MyFord Touch provide superior infotainment experiences that are easier to use, more responsive, and more feature-rich than Subaru's sluggish system. Subaru's Aha Radio implementation is nice, but the vehicle lacks support for more popular apps such as Pandora. Subaru's EyeSight system does a lot with just two cameras, but lacks blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts. If you care about tech, you'll want to look elsewhere in this class.
|Model||2014 Subaru Legacy|
|Power train||2.5-liter, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, CVT, Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive|
|EPA fuel economy||24 city, 32 highway, 27 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||21.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional Subaru Starlink navigation with voice command and traffic, SD card-based|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with SMS support|
|Disc player||Single-slot CD, optional DVD|
|MP3 player support||Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio, Aha Radio app support|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 9-speaker audio|
|Driver aids||Optional Subaru EyeSight with lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, and adaptive cruise control|
|Price as tested||$31,030|